Why Use The Word "Selfish"?


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Dictionaries only report how their editors believe that most people use a word, including the important nuances, and inherent contradictions.  (If "to fast" means to go without food, how much "fast food" do you have to eat before you starve to death?" -- Dogbert.)  I recommend Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Wikipedia here).

Objectivists know that Ayn Rand was very specific about her intentions when writing about "selfishness", "capitalism", "romanticism", "rational", and "realism" among many other words.  At the introductory lecture to "The Basic Principles of Objectivism" in Cleveland, Ohio, in September 1966, Nathaniel Branden was asked if rationalism is the same as realism.  He replied that as the words are used commonly, yes, but as they are used in formal philosophy, they are very different.  

He meant that someone who is rational is realistic and someone who is irrational is unrealistic. That much is easy -- and supported by common dictionaries.  As we know, however, philosophical rationalism and philosophical realism are two sides of a false dichotomy.   


Megan wrote: "I would consider selfishness a behavior problem or "bad." Hogging the ice cream does not equate with Hitler.

Whose ice cream is it? You need to supply context. If you were invited to a birthday party and the hostess is serving ice cream, that is one context.  If you share an apartment with friends and you bought yourself a gallon of Häagen-Dazs, and ate it while watching TV, then that is a different context.  

Ayn Rand used the phrase "man qua man" to mean something similar to what Aristotle called "the good life."  Indulging in a gallon of ice cream may not be in your best interests -- in fact, I assert that it is not.  Such behavior is not selfish and ignores the fundamentals of Objectivism.

Similarly, being a boor at a party violates many expectations of a truly selfish person who does not demand that others live for them, as, for instance, by supplying a birthday party with all the ice cream that you can eat.

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